How Gloria Vanderbilt became a designer jeans pioneer, fashion industry leader

Gloria Vanderbilt built a career as an actress, artist, socialite and author — but she was also celebrated in the fashion industry, first as a model and then as a designer jeans pioneer whose denim line is still regarded as one of the best in the market today.

Vanderbilt, who died Monday morning at age 95, began dabbling in the fashion world as a model in her teens before starting collaborations to launch her clothing lines. The heiress recalled to the Los Angeles Times in a 1987 interview that she became a designer “quite by accident.”

“How I got into fashion is Glentex produced scarfs done from paintings of mine. That was the beginning," she told the newspaper at the time, adding that the subsequent “couture” clothing line they created flopped.

Gloria Vanderbilt Vanderbilt, the intrepid heiress, artist and romantic who began her extraordinary life as the "poor little rich girl" of the Great Depression, survived family tragedy and multiple marriages and reigned during the 1970s and '80s as a (AP)

"We had manufacturing problems. We had two collections,” said the great-great-granddaughter of financier Cornelius Vanderbilt and mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. “Then I started having a lot of licenses for various things. You know, blouses and so forth and so on, and that's how the jeans came in."

In 1976, Vanderbilt and Mohan Murjani teamed up to launch a line of designer jeans under the name, Gloria Vanderbilt by Murjani. The jeans had Vanderbilt’s name embroidered in the back pocket along with the signature white swan logo placed on the front coin pocket. The denim line was known as the “first designer jeans in the world and first jeans exclusively designed to fit a woman,” the Murjani Group wrote on its website.

Portrait of socialite/designer Gloria Vanderbilt sitting amidst a group of models bending over to accent the rear of her designer jeans. (Getty Images)

Vanderbilt also recalled to People magazine in 2016 on meeting Murjani in India in the 1970s and creating the denim line.

"So, I went from my own designing dress business on Seventh Avenue to designing blouses for Murjani,” the then-92-year-old told the magazine. "And, there was a merchandising genius called Warren Hersch, and he had to manage the company. We were talking one day and he said, ‘Murjani’s, they’ve got all this denim fabric stored away in Hong Kong.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we make jeans, a really great fit jean?’"

The brand became a success especially after the $1 million advertising campaign that launched in 1978, with one image showing Vanderbilt sitting in the middle of a group of models bent over displaying the designer jeans. It generated more than $200 million in sales during its peak in 1980.

Heiress and designer Gloria Vanderbilt walks down a New York street. Vanderbilt died on Monday. (AP)

After her success in designer jeans, Vanderbilt branched out into other areas, including shoes, scarves, table and bed linens and China, through her company, Gloria Concepts. In 1988, Vanderbilt joined the designer fragrance market with her signature "Glorious."

By the late 1980s, Vanderbilt sold the name and licenses for the brand name "Gloria Vanderbilt" to Gitano, who transferred it to a group of private investors in 1993. More recently, her stretch jeans have been licensed through Jones Apparel Group Inc., which acquired Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp. in 2002 for $138 million.

Vanderbilt’s denim brand remains one of the largest to date due to its wide range of fits, fabrics, denim washes and details. The brand’s most well-known pair is the "Amanda Jean," dubbed “America’s original slimming jean.”

The jeans are sold at several retailers, including Kohl’s, JCPenney, Walmart and e-commerce giant Amazon. They also often appear on lists of top-rated women’s denim pants.

Even Cooper said he couldn’t escape seeing her mother’s designer jeans everywhere.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. (AP)

“I remember my brother and I had a game that throughout the day, we would try to count how many women we saw with our mom’s names on their jeans,” Cooper told People.

Cooper announced his mother’s death in an on-air eulogy on CNN on Monday. He said Vanderbilt had been suffering from advanced stomach cancer in the weeks before her death.


"Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms," the CNN anchor said in a statement. "She was a painter, a writer, and designer but also a remarkable mother, wife, and friend. She was 95 years old, but ask anyone close to her, and they'd tell you, she was the youngest person they knew, the coolest, and most modern."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.